SOCHI, Russia — Through all the twists and flips, the switch slides and the triple cork spins, Joss Christensen kept his inspiration close by his side.
“I put his photo in my pants pocket before competition,’’ said Christensen, whose father, J.D., died in August at age 67 of a heart condition. “I miss him and I hope he is proud.’’
On a beautiful springlike day in the mountains of Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, the 22-year-old from Park City, Utah, put heartbreak aside and pocketed gold, leading teammates Gus Kenworthy (silver) and Nick Goepper (bronze) to a masterful podium sweep in the men’s slopestyle skiing.
“It has been just an amazing day,’’ said Christensen, who was the last US skier named to the team. “I am stoked to be up here with my friends. America, we did it.”
Many slopestyle aficionados will remember Thursday as the greatest day in the history of the sport as the All-America trio put an exclamation point on US dominance in the new X Games events. Christensen’s gold is the fourth of the Games for the Stars and Stripes. All have been won on the slopes.
More impressively, the US kids have won three of the four inaugural slopestyle events here (Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson in snowboarding) and earned a silver in the other (Devin Logan in skiing).
And that’s something to get really stoked over.
“Our sport is young, cool, and edgy, and we have a following all over,’’ said Kenworthy, better known before the competition as the guy who adopted four stray puppies and their mother from the streets of Sochi. “We are bringing a new breath of life to the Olympics and the Olympics are helping showcase our sport, so it’s kind of a cool pairing.’’
The 1-2-3 finish for the US was only its third sweep of medals in a Winter Games men’s event. The first two were in figure skating in 1956 (at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy) and in snowboard halfpipe in 2002 (at Salt Lake City).
Navigating the tricky rails and harrowing jumps nearly flawlessly, Christensen was not to be denied, leading from qualifying through the finals. His final two runs were so brilliant he would have earned the silver, too. As the competitors soared, so too did the temperatures, which created soft, slushy landings and most favorable conditions.
Christensen’s three off-axis jumps at the end of his first qualifying run totaled 10 full spins in the span of 15 seconds — all coming while he skied over the ramp backward. That earned a competition-high 95.80 score, and he followed with a 93.80 effort.
Kenworthy sat in 10th place after a disappointing first jump, but more than made up for it with his second effort. The Telluride, Colo., native was the first skier to stomp a triple corked spin in competition at this year’s X Games, and he was able to put the trick down cleanly on his last attempt in a run that also included a double corked 1620 — the highest-degree rotation completed in the competition. That earned him a 93.60 score as he raised his arms and stormed into second place.
Echoing his running mate and the sentiment among his snowboarding brethren, Kenworthy said, “I am so stoked about an American 1-2-3. Nick is always the guy to kind of beat in a contest, he is so consistent and so incredible, and Joss is really killing it right now. He is one of my best friends and I am stoked.”
Goepper, a two-time X Games winner and gold-medal favorite, dropped a 92.40 during his highly technical first finals run (and stood second), but as he attempted to top Christensen in the game of “whatever trick you can do I can do better,” he smacked his skis against the second rail feature and missed his grab over the second jump, ending his chances. If there was disappointment, it wasn’t apparent.
“I feel amazing,’’ he beamed. “I think today was the best display of skiing we have ever seen, so I am happy.’’
On this day, there was no doubt whose star shined the brightest. As Christensen took the gold, he did it with his mother, Debbie, watching in the crowd, with tears in her eyes.
J.D. Christensen died while his son was in New Zealand, planning to compete in a World Cup event. He had planned to dedicate his performance in the event to his father, but flew home instead.
“[Joss] knew it wasn’t looking good,’’ said Debbie, who was married to J.D. for 35 years and relied on air miles and donations to make it to Sochi to watch her son compete. “He said when he left, ‘I’m gonna do this for you, Dad.’ ”
“My father supported me since I was young and never said no to me,’’ Christensen said. “I can’t thank him more for everything that he did for me.’’ The pair had been really close, and according to Debbie, his father’s death forced Joss to grow up fast.
“He realized he had to be the man,’’ she said.